James O'Keefe and Project Veritas spent 2020 trying to undermine the election. They failed.
Right-wing grifter James O’Keefe and his organization Project Veritas -- along with its more political arm Project Veritas Action -- are known for infiltrating progressive organizations, campaigns, and nonpartisan institutions and heavily editing recorded undercover footage to allege wrongdoing. In 2020, in a repeat of their efforts from past election seasons, O’Keefe and his group tried to spread various narratives about supposed voter fraud through dozens of videos released before and after the presidential election. Most of these claims were debunked quickly, but not before they were picked up by right-wing media and viewed millions of times on Twitter and YouTube.
The 2020 Project Veritas Playbook
Over the decade, Project Veritas has honed its tactics around releasing heavily edited videos that spread election misinformation and often play into conservative narratives about voting. 2020 was no exception.
Major misinformation pushed by Project Veritas during the 2020 election cycle
“Ballot harvesting” in Minnesota
In late September, Project Veritas released two videos falsely purporting to show instances of voter fraud in Minnesota, including a large-scale “cash-for-ballots” scheme supposedly connected to Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar. The first video, claiming to uncover illegal “ballot harvesting,” racked up over 1 million views on YouTube, while the second video, claiming to show the exchange of money for votes, got about half that.
The videos' central claims fell apart within days after local reporting revealed that one of the men O’Keefe claimed was shown harvesting ballots turned down a bribe from Project Veritas while the group's video was in production and that part of the video showing cash changing hands was actually staged. Other reporting revealed the source himself had credibility issues. Election integrity researchers also analyzed the spread and timing of the videos and concluded they were possibly a “coordinated disinformation campaign” with a likely direct connection to the Trump reelection effort. However, by the time all of this reporting was released and Project Veritas’ allegations had been debunked, they had already spread across the right-wing media ecosystem and had made it to President Donald Trump himself.
"Vote chasing” in Texas
In October, Project Veritas released multiple videos purporting to show instances of voter fraud in Texas. The videos focused on Raquel Rodriguez, identified as a campaign consultant for Republican congressional candidate Mauro Garza. The videos included evidence-free claims that Rodriguez had participated in illegal ballot collection and bought votes, as well as footage of her helping one person who appears to be a family member vote for Democrats.
After the first video was released, Rodriguez reportedly sent a letter to Project Veritas claiming that she was purposely feeding the group’s operative false information because she suspected they were not trustworthy, and that she was recorded helping her aunt in a personal capacity to complete the ballot the way her aunt wanted to vote.
At first, these allegations received credible coverage from some local papers and San Antonio’s WOAI broadcast station. At least five other local broadcast affiliates re-aired WOAI’s segment; all the stations are owned or operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has frequently pushed conservative misinformation on local news stations it controls across the country. After the initial coverage of the Project Veritas videos had aired throughout Texas, WOAI released clips of interviews with two judge candidates whom Project Veritas accused of being involved with this supposed scheme of voter fraud. Both candidates denied the allegations, with one providing proof that her business dealings with Rodriguez were legal. Rodriguez told the rest of her side of the story in an interview with a local video blog on October 29, where she repeated and expanded on her claim that she lied to Project Veritas and denied ever harvesting ballots. WOAI aired only some parts of this interview. In the full video, Rodriguez provided an affidavit signed by her aunt as proof that Rodriguez was not committing any crimes when she helped her relative vote.
Mainstream media outside of the state largely did not take interest in this story, but like other Project Veritas projects, it was immediately picked up by right-wing media outlets and quickly gained the attention of the state government before the accused parties could respond. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released a statement vowing to investigate the allegations, proving that even without national coverage from mainstream media, Project Veritas’ videos can still have impact.
Election-week videos and the Pennsylvania recantation
On Election Day, Project Veritas asked for tips on purported voter fraud and released multiple videos shortly after the polls closed that claimed the Postal Service had backdated ballots and possibly perpetrated fraud in Michigan and Pennsylvania. The group also accused a postal worker in Nevada of offering a Project Veritas operative blank ballots to be filled out and returned for potential voter fraud. The videos are all short and edited heavily, but none offer definitive proof of wrong-doing. In fact, local media and fact checkers debunked early allegations about the Postal Service backdating ballots in Michigan less than a day after the video was released.
Multiple post-election videos focus on Erie, Pennsylvania, postal worker Richard Hopkins, who Project Veritas convinced to come forward as a “whistleblower.” Hopkins told Project Veritas he overheard his bosses talking about backdating ballots, but recanted this claim to the Postal Service investigators almost immediately. When The Washington Post reported on the recantation, O’Keefe released a flurry of videos claiming that Hopkins was coerced, including two hours of audio from Hopkins’ interview with federal investigators. However, the recordings show Hopkins readily admitted that he did not overhear as much as he originally claimed and that he had probably filled in the gaps by making assumptions. Now it appears that Project Veritas may even be legally liable for making false statements in the original affidavit that Hopkins had to recant, according to Salon.
Despite Project Veritas’ history of credibility issues, Trump loyalists still jumped on these flimsy accusations of fraud before Hopkins recanted. Both Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself mentioned the Hopkins story as credible evidence of election tampering, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) encouraged the Department of Justice to investigate Hopkins’ allegations.
Project Veritas followed its videos with threats and harassment
Litigation and legal threats
O’Keefe and his organization like to brag about lawsuits filed against them, typically from groups or individuals targeted in the edited undercover videos. In fact, several cases against Project Veritas are still ongoing -- the group keeps a list of current litigation on its website -- and at least one suit against O’Keefe was settled out of court in the other party’s favor following his 2009 videos targeting the progressive group ACORN.
O’Keefe and Project Veritas also like to file or threaten to file lawsuits of their own. Most recently, O’Keefe announced a lawsuit against The New York Times to retract an article citing election integrity researchers who analyzed recent Project Veritas election videos and labeled them a “coordinated disinformation campaign.” O’Keefe has also threatened Minneapolis TV station KMSP with a lawsuit for its reporting on the same videos and Project Veritas' chief legal officer, Jared Ede, sent threatening emails to Salon while they were writing an article claiming Project Veritas could be legally liable for the potentially fraudulent allegations made by one of their “whistleblowers.”
Inciting harassment on social media
O’Keefe also often targets reporters, critics, and the subjects of his videos on social media, particularly on Twitter. He will sometimes direct his supporters to engage with specific individuals in a video series dubbed “Retracto,” in which he lampoons journalists who have issued corrections on their stories about Project Veritas, no matter how small. He shares their account handles, full names, and faces in videos and on his own social media accounts.
Additionally, YouTube videos debunking Project Veritas are often full of abusive comments directed at whoever is fact-checking the group. In 2020, this strategy included a video response attacking KMSP for the local outlet’s own investigative report debunking the group’s Minneapolis voter fraud videos. Veritas displayed the Twitter handle of a KMSP journalist in large font throughout most of the video, and the YouTube video for the KMSP report was bombed with dislikes and negative comments.
Surprising victims of their sting operations in person
O’Keefe has confronted multiple victims of Project Veritas stings himself, surprising people by showing up with a camera crew and trying to grill them about remarks they made on hidden camera footage. The resulting videos largely contain no new information and are usually very short, mostly involving O’Keefe hounding the person until they manage to get away from the situation. Many of the victims of Project Veritas Action stings, in particular the ones who make it to video, are low-level campaign or nonprofit employees. But the group has also tried to confront a candidate’s parents and even a candidate themself. In one recent instance, Project Veritas Action operatives showed up outside Sen.-elect Mark Kelly’s (D-AZ) house for more than half an hour. According to Kelly’s spokesperson, the group was repeatedly asked to leave the property but it “set up a camera and recorded something from the front driveway before eventually leaving.”
Hyping suspicious fundraisers for “whistleblowers”
Project Veritas continued its practice of helping its “whistleblowers” promote online fundraisers as soon as videos drop, with many of the pages prominently featuring slogans from O’Keefe’s group. GoFundMe has shut down two such fundraisers set up in 2020, but past efforts coinciding with the release of Project Veritas videos have raised tens of thousands of dollars. At least one Project Veritas election “whistleblower” has since moved on to a Christian crowdfunding site called GiveSendGo, though it is unclear whether they will also receive the $25,000 reward Project Veritas offered for tips related to voter fraud.
Media response to Project Veritas videos in 2020
This past year’s slate of Project Veritas videos followed past patterns of being promoted on social media and right-wing media before falling apart under scrutiny from local and mainstream outlets.
Unlike when Project Veritas first started over a decade ago, mainstream media did not give O’Keefe’s group the benefit of the doubt and largely ignored its “bombshells” except to debunk the videos. This is a marked change from the last presidential election cycle when The New York Times called O’Keefe a “political sleuth”.
Local coverage was more mixed. While some -- like Minnesota’s KMSP and Sahan Journal and Michigan’s Traverse City Record-Eagle -- helped provide the facts on Project Veritas videos, local Sinclair stations across the country repeated post-election claims about backdated ballots in Michigan even after they had been debunked.
Right-wing media still credibly repeated Project Veritas’ false claims about voter fraud, especially Fox host Sean Hannity, who played the group’s videos on his prime-time show and interviewed O’Keefe both there and on his radio show. Conservative sites like The Post Millennial, The Washington Times, Breitbart, and Gateway Pundit continued to publish stories on new videos shortly after they dropped, racking up tens of thousands of engagements on Facebook and Twitter -- including from the president.
Project Veritas videos are often followed by right-wing social media hype, with some videos trending and spreading among key conservative misinformers. Figures like James Woods, Donald Trump Jr, Ian Miles Cheong, Mark Levin, and Dan Bongino promoted Project Veritas content on Twitter this year.
Despite improvements in mainstream media coverage of Project Veritas videos in 2020, right-wing media still succeeded in spreading their lies about voter fraud to an eager audience this year -- especially on social media.
Looking ahead to 2021
Project Veritas is expected to continue manufacturing and spreading election misinformation ahead of the January Senate runoff elections in Georgia. In a December fundraising email the group claims to have sent over twenty “journalists” to the state to continue “exposing fraud.”
In late October, Project Veritas Action targeted the campaigns of both Georgia Democratic Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, even trying to get Ossoff’s parents on camera. But the group has so far posted videos of only young staffers claiming that their candidates were secretly more progressive than they were billing themselves to be -- in videos lacking both context and evidence for such statements.